I‘m sure many of you who love 1) football and 2) video games with the obsessive passion I do are fully familiar with the much-debated EA Sports monopoly – thanks to a ginormously expensive arrangement, they are the sole licensee of the National Football League, and use it to produce a handful of games – NFL Street, Head Coach, and of course Madden, all of which make them a ton of money. Biggest dog on the block. Have been forever. Inspires a huge following. Now if only the games they made were…more fun to play.
My top five favorite sports games regardless of console, in order, are: NCAA Football 06 (see! I don’t hate EA! This is about as close to perfect as a College Football game will ever be), MLB 08 The Show, Tecmo Super Bowl, NBA Jam, and Madden 64. None of these really get it right – Patrick Hruby had an excellent piece on why – but they were realistic enough to be true to experience, to reward the right decisions and punish the wrong ones, and fun to boot. (Remember fun? It’s what we had before setting a simple run-stopping defense required 14 button pushes).
Here’s the problem: last year’s Madden release was the first iteration of the game in history to sell significantly fewer copies than the prior iteration of the game. Like, almost THREE MILLION fewer games sold. EA lost 1/5th of their revenue, just like that. Now THAT’s gotta be fun.
I have more respect for EA – if you can call it that – than a lot of other gamers. Gamers look down on EA for feeding the sheep machine of beer drinking NFL fan frat boys, while gamers wear black drink Bawls and babble about how nobody appreciated Psychonauts. But it really is hard to put out a fully updated game every year on the clock, an ever expanding franchise system (run up to 30 years of simulation, imported draft classes with stats from NCAA games, realistic player performance, etc.) with all the marketing entailed and the vastness of the NFL property encompassed in one label. But when you get a quality experience – ESPN’s College Basketball game is a great example – it really is amazing how realistic these sports sims can be. The baseball games are just phenomenal now – when I have The Show running, the call of the game sounds so pitch-perfect that you’d think you’re listening to a radio broadcast of a real MLB game.
The EA designers really do respect the game, and they try hard. They’ve even gotten online at Operation Sports’ Forums to answer questions and gather glitches. And they’ve already put out an initial patch. But there’s no question that the most recent two games – the games since EA signed the deal to have a monopoly on NFL video games – have had major issues. Major issues as in, such a collection of glitches and problems that the games just don’t work as accurate simulations of the NFL.
I passed on last year’s game, along with roughly three million other people who’d bought Madden in 06. But I bought this year’s edition, primarily because I don’t have a single pro football game to run on 1080p (yeah, I know this one’s upscaled from 720 still), and it’s been 2+ years, so I figure this has to contain more than just a roster update. So I played a few games online, messed around with some of the new systems, and start a franchise. And here’s what happens:
Game one, week one. This is the game scheduled for right before McCain’s convention speech, opening night at the Meadowlands. They’ve got some great opening shots. The new voiceovers are decent. A lot more of a cinematic feel to the game, right from kickoff. The playbooks still suck in terms of a general lack of accuracy, but the play stats seem more accurate – nothing’s ridiculously exaggerated. It’s a close game, back and forth. The Giants pass rush is accurately fearsome, but their secondary is weak, and they get burned on the playaction. It’s 16-10 Giants at the beginning of the 3rd, but then a long drive, heavy ground game, for a TD. It’s 17-16 Redskins with minute left.
The CPU Giants get the ball back. They’re driving. The video game crowd is getting louder. Manning gets sacked, twice, but then they’re making long passes to the slot receiver, picking on the SS (starter got injured in simulated preseason). But time is running out, and they don’t have any timeouts left. Tick tick tick. It’s 4th down, they have to go for it. And then with 10 seconds left, they hit Burress along the sideline. Landry knocks him out of bounds at the 32. Only enough time for one 50+ yard attempt in the windy Meadowlands. It all comes down to this. Get read for the wide cinematic shot of a nervous Lawrence Tynes.
And then the CPU sends out the punter.
I started laughing. There is, of course, no earthly reason, no acceptable reason, NO freaking POSSIBLE reason that the AI would ever do this. EVER. It’s not even like it was fourth down and they were giving up – or the CPU couldn’t tell what time was on the game clock – it was just ridiculously bizarre. They have ten seconds and a 1st down on the 32. They can chuck it toward the endzone. They can kick it. I cannot believe what I am seeing. It is a travesty. As the kangaroo said: WTF, Mate.
They punt. Pooch kick through the endzone. Game over. Win.
I love football. So I hope, against all hope, this game bombs.